PSC President Barbara Bowen responds to members’ questions on the contract:
What’s happening with the contract?
We have begun negotiations with CUNY for a new contract, but CUNY has not made an economic offer. With no money on the table, the PSC can – and has – made progress on non-economic issues, but we cannot negotiate seriously on the big economic items such as salary increases and a more reasonable teaching load until CUNY comes forward with an offer.
Do I continue to go up in salary steps while we don’t have a new contract?
Yes. That’s one of the most important features of our existing contract, and one we have had to defend. In the last round of bargaining Chancellor Matthew Goldstein demanded that the union give up salary steps and allow steps to be replaced by “discretionary increases” doled out by the college presidents. You can see where that would have led. But the union stood firm. Thousands of you demonstrated your opposition, and we prevailed.
What about the people who are at the top salary step?
People who are already on the top step do not receive an increase until we negotiate one through the contract. That’s one reason the union is challenging the claim that public employees in New York have to accept wage freezes. There is no justification for our taking zero-percent “increases” while the richest people in the state continue to pay less than their fair share of taxes. The PSC made a breakthrough for top steps in the last contract, however, and it continues to benefit us. Top steps rose by 13.8% for full-time titles and by 16.7% for part-time titles over the period of the last contract.
But why hasn’t the union pressed CUNY for an economic offer?
Because the economic offers currently being made to public employees in New York are disastrous. They call for three years of zeros, along with other givebacks such as furlough days and major increases in the cost of health insurance. While the PSC does not negotiate directly with either the City or the State – we negotiate with CUNY – the economic offer we receive is influenced by the economics of the contracts settled by the City and State.
The PSC’s strategy has been to accomplish everything we can through informal negotiations, while at the same time working to change the economic and political policies that underlie these settlements. Rather than limiting our scope to the bargaining table, we are working with allies to shift the ground on which the table stands.
Is there any hope of a decent settlement in these unpromising conditions?
Yes, although I do not want to underestimate how difficult and partial our progress may be. There are a couple of things in our favor, however. First, the union has a powerful membership. As we saw with adjunct health insurance, when PSC members act together in support of each other, we can force a change. Second, the PSC, like the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and a handful of other unions, should receive a 4% annual increase for the year not covered by our last contract, if the usual pattern of public-sector bargaining in New York City is upheld. Both the UFT and the school principals’ union, CSA, are in legal proceedings to claim this increase, and the result of those proceedings may affect us.
Third, there may be a new opening for political change. Occupy Wall Street gave voice to mass outrage about economic injustice, making it harder for Albany to justify giving tax windfalls to the rich while savaging the poor and middle class. Albany’s shift on taxes in December, though it should not be mistaken for comprehensive progressive reform, went a long way toward closing the budget deficit that had been the excuse for demanding givebacks from the unions. The Transit Workers Union (TWU) has announced that it will not accept the State’s economic package of wage freezes and givebacks, and is demanding at least cost-of-living increases. We directly support our own contract campaign when we support theirs.
But when will I get my raise? Can you tell us the timetable?
I cannot give a timetable because our contract is not a product of negotiations between a single employer and a single union. It is intrinsically involved in the politics and economics of New York City and New York State. We will not shift the economics of our contract until we shift the policies of Albany and City Hall. That’s one reason the PSC is such an active political force, and a reason for our growing work in broad progressive coalitions.
It will take more than one union working alone to stop the opportunistic attacks on working people during this economic crisis, and the PSC is a leading voice in the effort.
But the union also has a short-term strategy. Our bargaining team knows that members cannot wait forever for salary increases and advances in our working conditions that would improve our students’ learning conditions. There is no reason that New York’s public employees should go without even cost-of-living increases. I cannot give you a timetable, but I can report the union bargaining team’s sense of urgency and active engagement in informal negotiations with CUNY. We have settled some material issues through this approach and are prepared to move quickly the moment we see an opening for a better economic package.
You mentioned progress away from the bargaining table; what have you accomplished?
The PSC has been able to achieve a surprising number of contractual advances, including some economic ones. Working cooperatively, CUNY and the PSC secured nearly $1 million over three years in additional funding for the PSC-CUNY Research Awards, while maintaining faculty control of the selection process. We also achieved a real landmark, which has already attracted national attention in the press: the establishment of paid parental leave as a permanent part of the contract. The PSC is still the only public-sector union in the state with this benefit.
Progress has been made in other areas, too: we have reached agreement on a revised hourly rate step system for faculty in the College Language Immersion Program, and we are close to an agreement permitting faculty and staff to use CUNY e-mail after retirement. Talks on other issues, such as establishment of a sick leave bank, are also under way.
Are there any other areas of progress?
What may be the biggest breakthrough has been achieved in the budgetary arena. The PSC’s long, intense campaign to have CUNY accept responsibility for funding adjunct health insurance paid off in September, when the CUNY Board included this item in their funding request to the State, and in January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo included it in his higher education budget. If our work continues to be successful, the establishment of permanent adjunct health insurance will literally transform the lives of those who receive it and will relieve pressure on the Welfare Fund budget.
You have always stressed that the union members, not the negotiating team, win the contract. What can I do?
We need every single member if we are to change the political and budgetary landscape that has been used to justify wage freezes and givebacks. The campaign for a progressive tax system is the campaign for our contract.
Right now, you can do two things. First, sign up to be a part of the union’s effort to change Albany’s economic policy. Speak directly to your representatives about the need for more funding for CUNY and the injustice of a tax structure that leaves the State short of revenue and the rich paying far less than their share. Join me and other PSC members in making our case in Albany, or join a local PSC delegation to meet with your representatives in their home districts.
Second, get active in the growing movement for economic justice. As hundreds of CUNY students have recognized, the fight against the hollowing out of CUNY is a pivotal fight for the Occupy movement. How can it be that the richest city in the world cannot afford reasonable class sizes or enough full-time faculty for public university students? Join the CUNY students fighting for more public funding, join the union members who are already in the streets demanding tax reform and a fair contract.
Supporting other unions’ struggles or Occupy Wall Street is not charity; it is direct participation in a movement that has the potential to affect our contract in the short term, and a much bigger political shift in the long term.